Horse track called unsafe

Pimlico Race Course has long violated fire code, city says

`Not safe to operate'

Housing department threatens court action before the Preakness

March 03, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Pimlico Race Course is rife with fire and safety violations that threaten the lives of 25,000 horse racing fans who attend the annual Preakness, city housing officials said yesterday.

The year-old violations, which include a lack of sprinklers, fire alarms and exits, have left the city Department of Housing and Community Development threatening to take track operators to court to force them to correct the problems at the ailing 130-year-old course before the trumpets blare on Preakness Day, May 20.

"It was our understanding that these issues were going to be dealt with," said city building inspector John Cole. "There are not enough doors for people to get out in a major event, such as the Preakness."

Building inspectors detailed the violations for the city Planning Commission yesterday, when the track's operator, the Maryland Jockey Club, sought city approval for track improvements, including new horse barns and portable luxury skyboxes.

Planning officials refused the requests, telling track operators to make safety improvements first.

Pimlico "is not safe to operate at this point," said Planning Commission Chairman Stelios Spiliadis. "Old or not old, this is the code."

Though they had raised the possibility of challenging the violations in court, track representatives said yesterday that they will make the safety improvements, and showed the commission a budget that would increase spending from $500,000 to $1 million to fix fire code problems. A lawyer and engineer representing Pimlico said they had obtained most of the needed permits and intend to get another today.

But the engineer, hired to help the track with a five-year, $18 million improvement plan, told commission members that eradicating the violations would take years. Martin P. Azola, engineer and vice president of facility development for the Maryland Jockey Club, said the 113-acre track, built in 1870, received its only major upgrade in 1954.

The Preakness attracks 100,000 fans, with the grandstand holding about 25,000 spectators, Azola said.

"What we are being asked to do is bring Pimlico up to code now," Azola said. "It's going to take us five years to do that."

The track has paid $420,000 in real estate taxes to the city over the past five years, Azola said, and brought $3.8 million in additional revenue to city and state coffers.

The battle over the violations comes one week after the General Assembly budget chairmen approved nearly $5 million to increase track purses for horse owners and breeders to make racing in the state more competitive.

Planning Commission members expressed anger that track operators would seek to improve comfort for high-stakes gamblers while the so-called $2 bettors would have to sit in an unsafe grandstand.

"I am tired of playing," commission member Dr. Gwendolyn A. Bullock told track representatives. "Is this place safe? The Fire Department says no.

"Is that what horse racing and gambling amount to in Baltimore and Maryland?" Bullock added. "Along with that gambling, we're not offering [bettors] a safe place."

The track's problems reached a critical juncture two years ago when a power outage occurred during the Preakness, part of horse racing's Triple Crown and one of its premiere events. Many fans were left in darkened stairwells. One of the violations discussed yesterday was the lack of a backup generator at the site during the power failure.

City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, whose district includes the race course, was less than sympathetic with the track's problems. Spector, who was appointed to the City Council in 1977 and is its longest-serving member, said the safety violations result from decades of stalling by track operators.

"These citations are not from Nebraska," Spector said. "What you are asking for today probably dates back to the mid-1970s as to what Pimlico was supposed to do."

As a result of the power outage and related problems, Joseph A. De Francis, who holds the controlling interest at Pimlico and Laurel Park, pledged the $18 million upgrade. Neither De Francis nor Robert J. DiPietro, who manages the facility, attended yesterday's Planning Commission meeting.

In a letter to city housing officials last month, track representatives had indicated that they might challenge the code violations in court, saying the facility's age could exempt it from safety improvements such as sprinklers.

But Robert W. Cannon, an attorney for Pimlico, told the commission yesterday that the safety violations are of critical importance to track operators. The track employs 350 workers during televised races and up to 2,500 on Preakness Day, Cannon said.

"It's a matter of as much concern to them as it is to the city," Cannon said.

The track has fixed seven of 13 building code violations issued in the past year, leaving six remaining, housing officials said.

Among the improvements, track operators installed exit signs, added emergency lighting, broke through several dead end corridors and built a temporary stairway to provide better egress from a club box.

Spiliadis, a restaurant operator, said the track must remove the remaining impediments to safety.

"Whatever is good for small mom-and-pop restaurants ought to be good for everybody else," Spiliadis said. "You may not have a legal obligation, but you have a moral obligation."

On instructions from the Planning Commission, track representatives agreed to meet again with housing officials to try to agree on a deadline by which to eradicate the safety problems.

But Deputy Housing Commissioner Denise Duval, who has led a crackdown on Baltimore housing violations, said the city will take track operators to court if the violations aren't fixed before horses are set to break from the gate on Preakness Day.

"The building officials want the public to be safe," Duval said.

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